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Locals look to get their products into new Whole Foods store in Nashua

Dan Cybulski never thought he would be making mustard for a living. But this past January, the Contoocook resident left his job at Banks Auto to work full-time for Blackwater Mustard, the business he and his father, Steve, run out of their residential kitchen.

Business has grown since they started about five years ago, and their product won a gold medal in a 2011 worldwide mustard competition. The mustard is sold in more than 30 stores across the region, and last week, Cybulski was hoping to take it even bigger.

He represented the family run company at the Whole Foods Local Supplier Summit held in Concord last Wednesday, with the hope of getting the mustard in the state’s first Whole Foods, which is opening up in Nashua on Aug. 19.

“This is the first shot,” he said at the summit, which was held at Bektash Shriners Center. “I had trouble sleeping last night. . . . I just want it to work out.”

Cybulski was one of more than 300 local farmers, producers and artisans from across the state who came to the summit to learn more about Whole Foods and how to get their products on the stores’ shelves.

For the Whole Foods team, the summit was a chance to gauge the strength of the state’s local movement and to help streamline the company’s so-called “on-boarding” process, which helps get local products into the store.

“The amount of local producers we have here in the area is amazing to us. . . . It is the most we have ever had in one of these events,” said Philip DeVito, the Nashua store’s team leader. “I think we are going to have an extremely strong local presence within the store and I think that is what Nashua has asked for.”

The Nashua store will be a full-service Whole Foods Market, equipped with a seafood department, natural organic produce, a grocery department and artisan breads. Although the company doesn’t have a set quota for local produce, DeVito said, Whole Foods tries to source locally whenever possible because it’s the local products that shape the stores.

“Clearly the interest is there from the New Hampshire suppliers and we’re just eager to get going,” said Lee Kane, the Whole Foods regional forager. “We would love to have as many of those products on the shelves as we can.”

Over the daylong summit Wednesday, Whole Foods representatives outlined its local producer loan program, its product development process, its quality standards and how local producers can begin the process of getting their products in stores.

“We’re looking for unique interesting items that hopefully nobody else carries,” Kane said. Right now, he said, the most important thing Whole Foods’s customers are asking for is transparency.

“They really want to know where the product came from, they want to trace it back to the grower, to the rancher, or the fisherman,” Kane said.

Jamie Robertson’s product can be traced back to Contoocook, where he and his wife own Contoocook Creamery at Bohanan Farm. On Wednesday, he came to the summit carrying a cooler, stocked with glass-bottled milk and several packages of cheddar cheese – all products that are made at the 430-acre farm.

It has been in operation since 1907, but he and his wife started marketing the glass-bottle milk four years ago, he said. He attended the summit with hopes to expand the business.

“I certainly feel we’re a pretty good match for Whole Foods, we hope they think we’re a good match for them,” he said. The most unique part for him is that each store operates with its own local buyer. They also have their own marketing teams and run their own programming. “That has a local flavor,” he said.

Flavor is another important feature the team is looking for in new products. During the on-boarding process, Kane said, the team will give producers feedback, such as ingredient substitution, improving a flavor profile or tweaking packaging.

All of the products that the company considers must meet the store’s published quality standards, which includes a list of about 80 unacceptable ingredients such as artificial colors and bleached flour.

Ingredients are what Annette Kuhn’s business will be based on. She hasn’t officially launched yet, but the Dunbarton resident attended Wednesday’s event hoping to get the word out about the food-line service she hopes to start. It will be Paleo Diet friendly, meaning no gluten and no sugar.

When she and her husband went Paleo last year, they quickly found most foods at grocery stores wouldn’t comply with the diet and so they had to make almost all their meals completely from scratch.

With the business, she wants to help people skip over that step by selling Paleo-friendly spice packets or sauces that people can add to meat or vegetables.

“We’re starting with dry mixes,” she said. “We use organic herbs and spices in every blend.”

Kuhn, whose business doesn’t yet have a name, came to the conference to start making inroads with Whole Foods as a possible buyer for the future.

Todd Larocque, manager at Carter Hill Orchard in Concord, hopes to get the farms’ apples and cider products on the Nashua store’s shelves by opening.

“I think it would fit really well,” he said. “What we like to do is supply local fresh food to local stores.”

For Cybulski, the local feel and the opportunity to get more people trying the product is attractive as well. His one concern, he said, would be trying to keep up with sales.

It takes an hour and a half to make a batch: two cases of 12 jars each. He and his dad usually work 10-hour days and are already putting in another stove to meet demand. With that addition, the company will be able to produce more batches at once. Keeping those batches small is key, he said.

“We could be doing 10 cases at a time,” he said, “but it just doesn’t have the same love to it.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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